Luxury Indigenous beadwork prominently featured at Western Canada Fashion Week

Helen Oro, Helen Oro Designs at Western Canada Fashion Week in Edmonton, May 2022. (Photo courtesy Western Canada Fashion Week).

by Chevi Rabbit, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

(ANNews) – For Indigenous Peoples across Turtle Island, beadwork is considered high value. Consequently, the patterns and color selection of beadwork designs are inherited and passed down to new generations of Indigenous families.

This year, custom handmade luxury beadwork pieces were on full display at Western Canada Fashion Week by designer Helen Oro, Pelican Lake First Nations member. Her designs are – simply put – Culturally Exquisite!

In an exclusive interview with ANNews reporter Chevi Rabbit, designer Helen Oro shares what inspires her creativity and passion for luxury beadwork.

Helen Oro beaded jewellery, modeled by Rhonda Johnson. (Photo by Canada Western Fashion Week.)

Oro comes from a family of artists, and she was raised by her kokum and mosom (grandparents) from the age of one. Oro also opened up about how Canada’s Big Brother and Sister program helped match her with a volunteer that she now refers to as a mom.

“My kokum and her sisters did a lot of beading and sewing, so I grew up watching them. I had uncles who drew and my dad, also made star blankets.

“I come from a family of artists. So I was bound to pick up on something for sure,” said Oro.

“My memories of watching my kokum at the sewing machine are what I remember the most and of me helping her push the pedal while she sewed…Eventually, I learned how to make dream catchers, which would be my first passion.”

Oro was inspired and encouraged by her kokum to pursue beadwork and fashion.

“My kokum got me into the little sister and big sister program when I was little. I was matched with my big sister at the age of 11. I now call her mom, and she is who I refer to when I say mom,” said Oro.

“They both inspire in many ways and have helped mold me into the woman I am today.”

Oro explained that when she first started creating, she was motivated to make beautiful things that she couldn’t afford to buy. “Then, it was a snowball effect of pushing myself to try new things when it came to beading.”

“Also, I wanted to set myself apart from other artisans by creating statement sets that weren’t quite traditional, and they’re not made for regalia but more for red carpet events,” said Oro. “They are luxury beaded statement sets.”

Indigenous artisans are participating in events where we never saw beaded jewelry or ribbon skirts or moccasins before, she added. Modern indigenous fashion is incorporating beadwork, moccasins, and ribbon skirts into modern outfits.

“I see us taking up more space with our beaded jewelry in the film industry, fashion weeks, and red-carpet events,” she said. “I mean, it’s already happening, but I see it [happening more often] and being even more celebrated. More ribbons, skirts, moccasins, and beaded jewelry, whether it’s worn in a traditional style or mixed in with modern pieces.”

During the pandemic, Oro bunkered down and became a hermit. “Showcasing at fashion week was just what I needed to start that fashion spark again,” she noted. “When creating this small collection, I got inspired to think out of the box, and now my creative juices are flowing. I can’t wait to showcase more of my work.”

“My message to youth would be not to wait to showcase your talent,” she added.  “If you create things like ribbon skirts, t-shirts, beadwork, or even rework clothing to make it your own – I say showcase it, don’t wait till you think you’re ready. Just do it now.”

Oro tells other creatives to share their work on social media and events but share it!

“When I first started creating, I had no idea what I was doing, but I was eager to get into the fashion scene, so I just started,” said Oro. “Even before I knew what I was doing, I started showcasing as an accessory designer.

“I didn’t see anyone in the fashion industry who was an Indigenous accessory designer to look up to when I started or to ask for advice from.

“I learned so much over the years by just putting myself out there with my small collections,” said Oro. “I traveled the world to various fashion weeks and was often the first First Nation designer to be part of their events.

“By not waiting till I was ready and putting myself and my talent out for the world to see, I’ve had some pretty amazing opportunities. So, my advice is not to wait till you think you’re ready – start sharing your gifts now,” said Oro.

Oro said the pandemic canceled a trip to travel to Fiji fashion week. “We would have been the first First Nation people to have attended. Now that things are opening back up, we are set to bring these plans back to life and will prepare for next year’s Fiji fashion week,” said Oro.

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